Wednesday August 12th, 2009

Yesterday, Tom Verducci examined the AL wild-card situation, so today it's time to break down the race in the NL, which is slightly more competitive, with five teams entering Wednesday within four games of the lead, compared to four teams within 5 1/2 in the AL. Here's a snapshot of each of those five clubs. (Sorry Brewers and Astros fans; you must be this tall (at least .500) to go on this ride.)

Currently: 62-51, 1 game ahead.

The case for: No team has been hotter over the past two months than the Rockies. On June 3, Colorado was 20-32, 15 1/2 games out in the NL West. Only the Nationals had a worse record in all of baseball. But since then, no team has a better record than Colorado's 42-19 mark that has moved it into the wild-card lead. Not surprisingly, the Rockies' surge began about the same time that Troy Tulowitzki began playing like himself again. Over that same period, Tulowitzki has hit .319/.401/.652 with 13 home runs and 45 RBIs and has raised his average from .216 to .275. They also boast four quality starters, and a rejuvenated Huston Street to close out games. The schedule sets up nicely as well: After finishing August with 10 games against the Giants and Dodgers, the Rockies open September by playing 13 straight against four of the worst teams in the NL -- the Mets, Diamondbacks, Reds and Padres.

The case against: As usual, the hitting is among the league's best, but Dexter Fowler just had an MRI on his knee after crashing into a wall, and three other starters -- Chris Iannetta, Ian Stewart and Clint Barmes -- are all hitting below .250. The struggles of Ryan Spillborghs and Garrett Atkins have limited the depth on Jim Tracy's bench.

Currently: 61-52, 1 game behind.

The case for: Pitching, pitching and more pitching. With Tim Lincecum and Matt Cain, the Giants boast the best top two of any team in the league. Lincecum looks like the favorite to repeat as NL Cy Young winner, with a 12-3 record, a league-leading 2.20 ERA and 198 strikeouts. Cain is having his long-awaited breakout year, going 12-4 with a 2.44 ERA. If Barry Zito emerges as a badly needed reliable third starter, the Giants will be in good shape. Zito has sparkled lately, going 3-0 with a 2.19 ERA in his past four starts.

The case against: Hitting, hitting and more hitting. An aging lineup features four starters -- Bengie Molina, Edgar Renteria, Randy Winn and Aaron Rowand -- who are 31 or older and, aside from Molina, haven't consistently contributed much. As a group, the offense ranks 14th in the NL in runs, slugging and OPS, 15th in home runs and last in the majors in on-base percentage. The schedule won't help either. They are facing an 11-game road trip starting on Thursday, and play 16 games in September against playoff contenders (Phillies, Dodgers, Rockies, Cubs). If they can survive until the end of that month, though, they will catch a break. The Giants close the season with three at home against Arizona and three on the road at San Diego.

Currently: 60-53, 2 games behind.

The case for: Baseball's most consistent overachievers are at it again, rebounding from a horrendous 9-20 May to play just under .600 ball since the start of June. They've been especially good in close games, going 20-14 in one-run contests, second only to the Dodgers in the National League. As usual they have plenty of pop in the lineup, with two players having already reached the 20-home run mark and Hanley Ramirez not far behind at 16. If it weren't for Albert Pujols, Ramirez would be a leading contender for the NL MVP award, leading the league with a .351 average and closing in on his first 100-RBI season.

The case against: They strike out far too much (leading the league in whiffs), only one pitcher (Josh Johnson) has been a regularly reliable starter, and the back of the bullpen remains unsettled, with neither Matt Lindstrom (6.12 ERA) and Leo Nunez (four blown saves in 16 chances) able to provide a consistent presence to close out games. The Marlins have scored exactly the same number of runs as they've given up, a measuring stick that suggests their record may be a bit exaggerated. They close with 13 of 19 on the road, and three of those home games are against the first-place Phillies.

Currently: 58-53, 3 games behind.

The case for: The Cubs are more focused on catching the Cardinals, whom they also trail by three games in the NL Central. That is the less crowded road to October, but the Cubs have the talent to get there through the wild card as well. There isn't a more talented team in the wild-card hunt. Case in point: Rich Harden, who's 7-7 with a 4.30 ERA but a team-best 10.5 K/9, has the worst record and ERA among the Cubs' five starters. Aramis Ramirez's return to the lineup and Milton Bradley's return to form (.338/.461/.465 in the second half) have made the offense considerably more dangerous. The biggest benefit, though, comes from their schedule: Only 14 of their remaining 51 games are against teams currently over .500, which is huge considering their struggles against quality opposition this season (19-31, fifth-worst in the NL).

The case against: The offense isn't what it used to be (.253 batting average, 14th in the NL) and the bullpen is still a question mark. Will Kevin Gregg's arm hold up? He already had to shut himself down for a couple days a few weeks ago with a "tired arm," and although Carlos Marmol is a serviceable backup, he hasn't been nearly as electric as he was last year.

Currently: 59-54, 4 games behind.

The case for: Beating the Phillies seven of nine this year and taking three of four from the Dodgers in L.A. last week should prove they're no fluke. The starting rotation has been superb, ranking second in the NL with a 3.65 ERA. Javier Vazquez has finally looked like the front-of-the-rotation stud he's been projected to be for so long, and Tommy Hanson has been as good as advertised. If they make it to late September, seven of their last 10 games are against the Nationals, and the other three are home against the Marlins.

The case against: The lineup may not be deep enough. Chipper Jones remains a force, but while Brian McCann and Yunel Escobar have been productive, there isn't a lot else to scare opposing managers. Can Bobby Cox expect anything out of Tim Hudson, who hasn't pitched in more than a year and is still rehabbing from Tommy John surgery? And how much more can Cox expect from Hanson, who is two weeks away from his 23rd birthday but has already surpassed his professional high in innings pitched with almost two months left in the season?

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